Here is the itinerary of our two-week long trip across Japan. The places we visited are not all in order – we started in Osaka & Nara and then headed to Kyoto – however, since there is so much to see and do in Kyoto, I dedicated to it a bigger section.
We flew to Itami airport (the smallest one in Osaka and closer to the city center) from Narita, and we spent in Osaka our first night in this very convenient hotel, where we had two small but very modern rooms and a nice breakfast.
Our first Japanese dinner of the trip was a delicious okonomiyaki in an izakaya very near to our hotel, in the central Shinsaibashi area. Unfortunately we didn't have time to tour the city, but we just had a very nice walk along the Sakaisujidori and Dōtombori streets to reach Kintetsu-Nipponbashi station where we took the train to Nara (on the Kintestu-Nara line).
If we had time we would have certainly visited the gigantic fortress of Osaka-jō and the neighborhood of Umeda, where there is some interesting modern architecture. Next time!
We spent in the ancient capital of Japan Nara one full day and a night, and I was happy to get to stay longer than most people usually do (Nara is a popular day-trip from Kyoto). We stayed at the lovely Haruya Naramachi Guesthouse, in a 100-year old Japanese-style traditional house in a quite area of the town, less than 10 minutes walk from Nara park. Our tatami room was big and overlooking a pretty garden/court.
The main train station of Kintestu-Nara is few meters away from the entrance of the famous Nara Kōen (Park), where you'll find all the major sightseeing. The area around the station is busy and full of shops and restaurants, especially on the pedestrian Konishi Sakura Dori and the covered Higashimuki Dori.
The first think you encounter in the park is the beautiful Kofukuji pagoda and the Noborioji Park, where all the famous ultra-tamed deer are for sure the main attraction. If you keep walking into the park, you will see on the left a very touristy area where most of the shops and restaurants are, being right next to the entrance of the iconic Tōdaji Temple, one of the biggest wooden temple of the world and home to the famous Buddha bronze statue. It's absolutely unmissable, despite the crowds, and the garden surrounding it is also very beautiful.
From the Tōdaji I recommend walking first to the Sangatsu and Ningatsu temples and then, along the (less crowded) northern edge of the forest to the beautiful Kasuga-taisha temple and shrine, immersed in a nice forest and famous for the thousands of stone and bronze lanterns. From there we also walked to the Ukiki-do pavillon surrounded by a lake, which is very scenic and picturesque, and from there to the small shrine of Naramachitenjinsha. The area south of that is called Naramachi and it's very pretty and quaint, with narrow streets and the typical traditional Japanese houses.
We stopped in Himeji on the way from Kyoto to Okayama by shinkansen and I highly suggest it, because the fortress and the surrounding garden are really impressive: it's like to be in a samurai movie! From the Himeji JR station you can walk 15 minutes on the big boulevard to the main entrance of the castle (Himeji-jō) or take a taxi (like we did). The complex is huge, divided into the main fortress (that you can visit up to the fifth floor), the moats, the citadel and the gardens, so reserve at least a couple of hours to see it all.
From Himeji we hopped on the shinkansen again after lunch and headed to Okayama, where we changed to the local trains to Chayamachi and then Uno Port, from where you take the 20 minute-ferry to Naoshima and the other island of the Seto Inland Sea.
Naoshima became really famous after the great Tadao Andō architect decided to build six stunning museums and it's now considered one of the most important contemporary art center in Japan - and because it's well-known internationally it's very easy to visit. From the main (little) port of Miyanoura you can hop on free shuttles that take you to the various installations. We decided to go (stopping by the beach where the famous Kusama's yellow pumpkin is) to one of the most popular, Chichū Art Museum, which is in a very cool building partly underground and host few but majestic art paintings. The cafe is also offering a very nice view on the inlet. Not far from there you can go to the Benesse House Museum (which we din't have time to see) and the Lee Ufan Museum. The other village of Honumra is very picturesque and it's where the Tadao Andō museum is and where we had a lovely dinner in the hippie Seven Islands. Another famous place to visit for art lovers is the public sento of Naoshima Bath. That night we went back to Uno Port where we slept in a trailer hotel by the dock.
I think Hiroshima should be on everyone's list of things to see in Japan, and even if yes, it's true that it's mostly reconstructed, the feeling that you will have seeing the Peace Memorial Park will stay with your for a long time. We visited it in 1999 and 20 years later was exactly the same. The city's location between many rivers (which are actually the delta of the Ōta-gawa and the reason why it was chosen for dropping the bomb... because easy to spot from the sky), makes it actually very pleasant to walk around, even if you are not visiting the Atomic bomb epicenter. We stayed in a nice hotel very close to the station, on the Kyobashi-gawa river, a short walk away from the city center and the Hondōri covered street, where we ate lunch. Before heading to the Peace Park, I recommend you to visit the Fukuromachi Elementary School Museum, which was one of the few buildings that stayed intact after the bomb and served as a rescue place. The Peace Memorial Museum and the surrounding Park (where the famous Victims Cenotaph and the Eternal Flame are) are absolutely incredible, and so it's the Children Peace Memorial honoring the brave Sadako. On the other side of the river you will see the Atomic Bomb Dome and few feet away, you can walk to the actual Hypocenter of the Bomb. We then walked north across the Motomachi Park and along the Hiroshima Castle to catch the train to Miyajima (20 minutes away) from the Shin-Akushima station (it's on the Sanyo Line and you can use the JR Pass).
The ferry to the unmissable island of Miyajima leaves from the Miyajimaguchi port every half an hour and it's a very popular excursion also for Japanese, given the picturesque village and the many temples and shrine to see (together, apparently, with some of the most beautiful ryokans to spend the night), so expect always lines! One you get on the island, you can walk along the main Omotesando shopping street or the seaside street, which has a beautiful view on the famous Itsukushima-jinga great tori, right in front, few meters off shore! The walk is very pleasant (with deer strolling among you) and the whole atmosphere, especially in the late afternoon like when we went, very magical, despite the obvious tourists. If the tide is low you can even walk to the bottom of the shrine. There are many good places recommended for street food lovers there, but we decided to go back to Hiroshima where we ate delicious yakitori in a very local izakaya with the funniest chef.
We really wanted to visit a lesser touristy place in Japan so we opted for the Southern island of Kyūshū, which has many interesting places to see and it's also a good starting point for the Ryuku islands. We had only a few days there and we focused on Nagasaki and the Unzen peninsula, plus one night in Fukuoka. As soon as you arrive at the train station of Nagasaki, you notice that there's a different, quieter and unpretentious atmosphere, that is reflected by both the architecture and the slower pace of people here. The city overlooks a very picturesque harbor and surrounded by beautiful hills. Despite the obvious fame because of the bomb, its diverse culture (a mix of Christian, Chinese and Shinto) and its history are far richer and older than that, having been for centuries the only trading port in Japan connected to Europe, especially during the long isolation of the country under the Tokugawa shogun (because of the spread of Christianity through the Portuguese missionaries), when only Dutch merchants were allowed to base there. Nagasaki has always had also a very large and lively Chinese community, which is reflected in the nice and central area of Chinatown, where we had our first lunch (a very good dim-sum). Nearby, I highly recommend also to visit the old Dutch enclave of Dejima, a small island that even if recreated amazingly shows the everyday life of the merchants confined here for two hundred years during the 1600 and 1700. We then walked along the main road by the water and the cute neighborhood of Ourimachi, to the Christian Oura Cathedral, right at the bottom of the very beautiful Glover Gardens - a fantastic colonial villa surrounded by a luxuriant park and with the best view of Nagasaki (a must-see if you're in town). In the evening we watched the sunset in the lovely Seaside Park by the harbor and ate in the touristy but pretty area of DejimaWharf. Around Chinatown, and walking along the Nakashima river, you will see several bridges, another reason the city is also famous for, among which the Meganebashi bridge is the oldest and prettiest.
The next morning we rented a car at this Budget near the station and drove up to the Mt. Inasayama to see the famous Observatory, from which there is an incredible 360 degree view of the city and the bay. You can also take a ropeway to get there. We lastly headed to the quite but somber Peace Park few miles north of the center (with the beautiful Fountain of Peace) and the Bomb Hypocenter Cenotaph, that left us with a rather different and sadder feeling from the imposing monuments and museum of Hiroshima.
We drove along the coast of the Shimabara Hantō penisula, which forms around the base of the Unzen-dake volcano. The coastal towns along the sea have a nostalgic feel of an age of past summer resorts, popular in the sixties but not anymore. The road that takes you up to the top is beautiful and has a fresh and mountainous air. The famous hot-spring destination of Unzen lays between a valley and a lake, perched on one side of the volcano, where sulfurous boiling hot waters sprout from the ground and emit ominous vapors, powering the industry of the area and contrasting with the beautiful vegetation around. Five hundred years ago, this is where Japanese monks brought Christian priests to be tortured in the scalding and boiling mud pools during the period of Christian persecution in Japan; hence giving them the name jigoku, or "hells" in English. Martin Scorsese's film, Silence, told this story and was filmed in this area. Now you can walk around the sulfur pools on paved nature trails with occasional monuments dedicated to the Christian martyrs. We loved the quite, relaxing feel of the village, that doesn't have a lot of tourists in the summer and that's probably why we found a very good deal for a very famous hotel from the '60s which had the traditional onsen plus a private bath (that we enjoyed for two hours), beautiful and huge ryokan-style bedrooms, and also offered a fantastic Japanese dinner (with 10 different courses) and breakfast. The next day we drove up to the top of the top of the volcano, which is still active and last erupted in 1991. At the look-out point there is a ropeway which can take you within four hundred meters of the peak - but we didn't have the time to wait for the next ride. It gives you an idea of what the last eruption was like, when the top of the mountain blew off and created a new tip, sending avalanches of ash to the town of Shimabara below. Then in Shimabara, we saw the Shimabara-jō castle, which was the site of the largest Christian Rebellion against persecution in Japan at the time, and now houses a charming museum of the area, as well as an observation deck at the top.
We decided to visit the lesser-known island of Amami Ōshima, of the Ryukyū archipelago, because we thought the bigger Okinawa was too touristy and overdeveloped. Amami looked like it was more untouched, and that's exactly what we found. We flew from Fukuoka with a convenient 2-hour flight but there are also two ferry lines that leave Kagoshima at night and arrive there in the morning.
We booked the lovely Halemakana guesthouse owned by a wonderful Japanese surfer couple from Tokyo and among the very few that are available for visitors. Without a car it's impossible to get around (there are a couple of bus lines but they're expensive and unreliable) so we managed to rent one just outside of the airport. The area where we were staying (Tatsugochō), in the north and more beautiful part of the island, where the airport also is, doesn't really have a village, just a few houses along the beach: including a burger shack, a hotel called Busayamamura with a restaurant attached, and one convenience store, where we quickly became loyal customers (because our guesthouse didn't have a kitchen). From there we could drive 20 minutes north to our favorite, secluded beach of Sakibaru (find this on your google maps), but the whole area has many wonderful spots and very little people. Tomori beach, just 5 minutes from the airport is also beautiful and one of the most famous spots for snorkeling; from there you can drive to Cape Ayamaru, a very scenic viewpoint with a cute cafe. On the other northern side of the small peninsula near our guesthouse, there is another nice area with small private beaches, where the probably most expensive resort of the island, Nest, is, with a fancy little restaurant. We instead truly enjoyed the local feel of where we were staying, where we also had the chance to participate in a local folklore dance party at the Busayanamara restaurant we ate the first night. Driving south to the capital of the island Naze could take more than an hour, because roads are small and busy with trucks... but when you pass it you finally arrive at the famous park and beach of Ohama, where you can also visit a small Ocean Exhibition hall and see many sea turtles. From there we drove south to the remote villages near the inland waterfalls of Materyia, and we stopped in Kuninao to have lunch in a adorable little izakaya called Bee lunch run by another surfer couple, where we also met two chatty Japanese men who serenaded us with "O' Sole mio"! On our last night we ate at another very good izakaya in the town of Tsatugo.
One thing to keep in mind when you go to these sub-tropical islands is that typhoons may ruin your plans, like it did for us: we only had one day of sun out of the four we were in Amami, so check the weather patterns of the period you want to go in... Overall you can still enjoy the primordial nature of these places, but be careful of the very dangerous habu snake, which is particularly venomous and found all over Amami.
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